CAIRO: David Cameron doesn’t look like Hosni Mubarak — hated scourge of Egyptians. That would be Robert De Niro.
Nor does dapper Dave look like Tunisia’s ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, or Syria’s aptly-onomatopoeaic Bashar al-Assad, or any other tyrant from Pyongyang to Minsk.
But in making a reflexive call to curtail social media, Cameron sure is sounding a lot like a potentate, and perhaps forgetting, in a moment of madness, his place in history, as an encourager-in-chief of this year’s democratic uprisings across the Middle East.
Cameron’s call, made to British parliamentarians in the wake of this past week’s appalling riots, seems to echo the very tactics deployed by Mubarak and his ilk to stay in power — and we know what happened there.
And it would be wrong, as everyone from academics, technologists and anarcho-bloggers in bedsits have been quick to remind him. Curtailing social media won’t stop people rioting. Effective policing, perhaps organized via social media, might be a better idea.
That also seems to be the view from the millions across the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East who secured their liberty from dictatorship in large part by artful deployment of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr et al and, yes, BlackBerry Messenger. And still are, as they secure their revolutionary accomplishments.
On communal TVs in poor villages across the sprawling Nile Delta or the sweltering backstreets of teeming Cairo, Egyptians watched the violence from London and were as appalled and flummoxed as any right-minded folk from England’s gentle shires.
Poor, desperate, burdened by a future uncertain and a sclerotic, rudderless government — if anyone could be excused a bit of cathartic anarchy, it’s Egyptians.
But unfailingly polite and good-natured, they can’t understand why people in the rich West, possessed of worldly items beyond their dreams, would trash and steal.
These are people who think that Facebook helped deliver them from tyranny. That has elevated social media in the Middle East to a status it probably doesn’t yet deserve, as some magical panacea to deliver just about everything — a voice, hope and much-needed prosperity.
In some places, it is taking over government function. Access to the new administration in Tunis is best done by Facebook these heady post-revolutionary days. Tunisian civil servants seem to barely pick up their mobiles to speak or text these days, so absorbed are they by Facebook. For a few months, there was even a blogger in the cabinet, until he fell out with his colleagues because he was live-tweeting their meetings.
With the Mubaraks and their cronies blamed for Egypt’s poverty, and as fingers are pointed at corruptors embedded inside Cairo’s dysfunctional government, Egypt’s apprentice democrats promise that with plurality will come a meritorious economy with jobs, healthy incomes, hope for the future.
In this, they are egged on by Western leaders. Indeed, David Cameron was the first world leader to visit Cairo after the revolution, just 10 days after Mubarak stepped down in February.
That’s all very well, but for all the talk of “Facebook Revolutions,” penetration and connectedness to the net and even to mobiles is still very limited in Egypt, beyond the big cities.
But the surprising outcome of the revolution sent Egyptians a subliminal message that being connected — whatever that meant to people who weren’t — can deliver extraordinary results.
So more Egyptians than ever are now spending larger portions of their limited incomes to get online, because they think — misguidedly perhaps — that being online is an automatic way out of grinding poverty.
In the main, it is very encouraging. And democratic.
But wait! On that village TV, beaming from the place Egyptians now know as the mother of parliaments, the same man who rushed to their capital to tell them their digitally-inspired revolution was a wonderful thing for them and humanity, is now saying that the facilitating medium that helped them make history should be curtailed?
How very Mubarak.